Why does chemotherapy cause hair loss?
Most cancer patients who go through chemotherapy will experience hair loss. Chemotherapy drugs target fast-growing cells in the body, but cannot tell the difference between cancer cells and other cells like hair follicles. This results in hair loss all over the body.
Whether or not hair loss occurs depends on the type and dosage of the chemotherapy drug. Ask your doctor if your chemotherapy treatment will result in hair loss so you can be prepared.
Hair loss from chemotherapy usually begins seven to 21 days after treatment begins and starts to grow back after treatment ends. Some people start getting hair back during treatment. The time it takes to re-grow hair can vary from 3-12 months. Sometimes the new hair will have a different texture or color.
Coping With Hair Loss from Chemotherapy
While hair loss from chemotherapy can’t be prevented, there are ways to cope:
- Consider cutting your hair short or shaving your head once hair loss begins
- Use mild shampoos and soft hair brushes
- Avoid blow dryers, curling irons, and other hot appliances
- Keep your scalp clean and moisturized to prevent skin problems
- Protect your scalp from the sun with hats, wigs or sunscreen
- Be creative! Use colorful scarves, turbans or hats. Make sure your headwear is not too tight or irritating to your scalp.
- Wigs are an option, although good-quality wigs can be expensive. Check with your insurance company to see if your plan will help cover the cost.
Beauty & Barber Shop
Wigs, scarves, hats and other services are available to our patients at no charge.
Location: Main Building, Floor 6 near Elevator F, G6.3253
Hours: Weekdays 7:30 a.m.- 4:30 p.m.
When a friend faces cancer, she will probably endure many experiences that are unique to cancer patients. The uniqueness of these experiences can make it difficult to know how to support her. One such experience is the hair loss caused by some chemotherapy treatments.
I know friends are eager to provide compassionate support when someone loses her hair. I’ve been the friend wanting to give support, and I’ve been the one staring at my shaved head in the mirror when I battled angiosarcoma in 2010. Here are some tips for loving your friend through the experience of hair loss.
1. Understand and empathize with her grief.
When I lost my hair, I was in the midst of a battle to see my 35th birthday. In a way, being bald was the least of my worries. But the grief I felt was still intense.
I struggled with my grief. It seemed superficial in light of all I was facing. And yet, the loss was real and painful. I needed friends to understand and acknowledge the loss and the emotions that accompanied it. You can support your friend through her hair loss by empathizing with her sadness, acknowledging the magnitude of her loss, and letting her know it’s OK to grieve.
2. Prepare yourself to respond with support when you see her.
Prior to her hair loss, your friend may not look sick. You probably haven’t been shocked by the sight of her.
But I know from experience that the first time you see a friend who has lost her hair, it is upsetting. It’s emotional for you, and it may feel intimidating for your friend. She may feel self-conscious and wonder how you will react.
During this first encounter, try to match your friend’s emotions. If she cries, cry with her. If she’s upbeat and wants to just act normally, smile and follow her lead.
If you have lost someone you care about to cancer, seeing your friend’s hair loss may bring up difficult memories. It’s important to prepare yourself emotionally so that when you see your friend, you are ready to respond with support and encouragement. Show her with your words and actions that you’re in this fight with her, no matter what.
3. Don’t say, “It will grow back!”
These words are meant to be encouraging, but it can feel to your friend as though you are minimizing what she’s going through. It’s true, once your friend finishes chemo, her hair will grow back. However, it may take several years for her hair to return to it’s pre-chemo length.
When her hair grows back, her curly hair may grow back in straight; her straight hair may come back curly. You don’t realize until you’ve been bald that it takes years for the hair growing from the top of your head to reach your shoulders.
So while it is true that her hair will grow back, she will be living with this visible reminder of her illness for a long time. And she needs you to acknowledge the pain of that reality.
Your support makes a difference
I hope these suggestions give you some ideas for how to support your friend through her hair loss. Ask questions and find out how your friend is feeling about this aspect of her cancer journey. Whether she’s showing off a colorful wig or weeping as she shaves her head, your friend will benefit from your compassion and care.